Awadagin Pratt stepped in for ailing Cuban pianist, Horatio Gutierrez, at the Eastern Music Festival and delivered a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op. 58. One of the pinnacles of the entire concerto repertory, this work, from Beethoven’s happier middle period, is always an emotionally satisfying experience from the intimate opening with the piano by itself and the mysterious reply of the orchestra in the distant key of B major, to the craggy second movement, pitting unison strings against the frail but noble voice of the piano, and culminating in the charming Rondo with its powerful final cadenza. Pratt played the entire concerto with ease, finesse and power. His phrasing was subtly nuanced and modulations into distant keys shimmered. The Eastern Festival Orchestra, under the direction of its music director, Gerard Schwarz, was up to the challenge – pensive, persuasive and powerful, and principal cellist Neal Cary’s solo pedal points in the Rondo were gorgeous.

The concert opened with the always popular concert overture, Leonore Overture No.3, Op.72b, one of four overtures Beethoven penned for his only opera, Fidelio (a.k.a. Leonore). Of these four overtures, the Leonore No. 3 is currently the most popular, although a very good case can be made for the Leonore No. 2, a great favorite of this writer. This performance was one of the best in recent memory. Notable was the exceptionally soft start to the main body of the overture and its thrilling crescendo, the brilliant flute solo of Les Roettges, the Presto entrance of the violins in the coda (only three to start, then the whole section), the exciting trumpet call of Mark Neihaus (behind the balcony) and the hard sticks used throughout by timpanist John Fedderson.

The less-than-perfect acoustics of Dana Auditorium notwithstanding, the Eastern Festival Orchestra is a superb performing ensemble composed of professional musicians from across the country. In just a few weeks, under the trusting direction of renowned conductor Gerard Schwarz, they produce consistently excellent performances not only of works in the standard repertory, but of such sleepers as the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy and Mahler Symphony No. 7. Several orchestras in North Carolina play well – the Charlotte Symphony, especially in softer passages; the North Carolina and Winston-Salem Symphonies, both best in louder passages, and the Greensboro Symphony, despite a hall with poor acoustics. But the Eastern Festival Orchestra delivers the most consistently balanced and homogeneous blend over the entire range of dynamics, and through the wide range of styles and repertory. They are superb!

After intermission, we were treated to a delightful piece by Chinese-American composer, Bright Sheng, who also conducted. The 10-minute work, Tibetan Swing, is an energetic work of a largely rhythmic nature. Conducting without a baton in a lively and bouncy manner, Maestro Sheng was the very personification of the music, with its mixed meters, wide-ranging drum beats and effervescent colors. Much of the melodic writing is in parallel motion, short motifs repeating themselves in a sort of ostinato, then moving to another interval, another set of instruments. This was a very enjoyable piece; Mo Sheng’s ebullient conducting style matched the music perfectly!

Maestro Schwarz returned to the podium to conduct the closing “Sinfonietta” by Leoš Janáček, a crowd pleaser if there ever was one. Janáček has perhaps been better known as a composer of operas –Jenufa (1904), The Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropulos Affair (1926) and From the House of the Dead (posthumous) – although I am very partial to his two string quartets and his tone poem, Taras Bulba. Janáček is a very original, innovative composer. Preoccupied with speech patterns, rhythms and intonations, he incorporated bits of his research into his works, as well as a wealth of Czech folk music.

The first and closing fifth movements of the “Sinfonietta” add a handful of extra trumpets so there are easily two dozen brass players in addition to a full complement of strings, woodwinds and percussion. This performance of the “Sinfonietta” brought the entire audience to its feet, cheering!